Amazon looks for the heart in bookselling

Amazon looks for the heart in bookselling

Amazon's move into high street bookselling is a bold, adventurous and complex development, but not the misstep its decision to go into traditional publishing in 2011 proved to be. Amazon’s first bricks and mortar bookshop opens in Seattle this morning (3rd November) selling books at the same price as its website Amazon.com.

In 2011, when Amazon hired Larry Kirshbaum to run a New York publishing outpost, I noted that the development was an affirmation that the publishing model the retailer had spent so long deriding was robust. I said that Amazon would most likely discover that publishing was a difficult and messy business, lacking the surety and economies of scale enjoyed across its other operations. Its re-engineering of that operation since is a master-class in how Amazon never stops iterating: its publishing operation is now (in its way) as formidable as it might then have wished it could be, but it is nevertheless very different from how it was conceived.

Amazon’s move into high street bookselling has the whiff of this same vaulting ambition, except with one key difference. Amazon already is a bookseller. As Amazon notes: “We’ve applied 20 years of online bookselling experience to build a store that integrates the benefits of offline and online book shopping.” Back in 2011, Amazon had no experience in publishing: it simply wanted to take publishers on at their own game, and lost.

Amazon as a high street bookseller is a different proposition to Amazon as a publisher.

The shop, based in Seattle’s University Village, will stock 5,000 to 6,000 titles, and looks like it will largely be curated by Amazon customers, with books face-out, displayed with a review card, with the Amazon.com customer rating and a review. Prices will match the online store, meaning that Amazon is already bending the rules. It will be a bookseller, but not in any sense a traditional one. As Amazon notes: “The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

According to the Seattle Times, the store won’t entirely be curated by algorithm. “Jennifer Cast, vice president of Amazon Books, is careful to say the store won’t be stocked solely on data. ‘It’s data with heart,’ she said. ‘We’re taking the data we have and we’re creating physical places with it.'” Amazon has also said that the store will not be a location to pick up Amazon orders, and it won’t be a showcase for Amazon Publishing imprints. It may be the first of many, or an outlier for a different kind of approach to retailing books. Amazon is typically guarded, typically data-driven. Cast told the Seattle Times: “We’re completely focused on this bookstore. We hope this is not our only one. But we’ll see.”

It is not unusual for primarily digital businesses to run physical retail operations (Apple being the most obvious example), and in opening near it head-quarters senior executives will be better able to monitor its impact, as well as enjoy the halo effect of running an actual bookshop. It is not surprising that for the opening, a staff favourites section includes a few of Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos’ favourite titles, including Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos.

But it would be a mistake to imagine this as a vanity project. The store affirms what we have suspected, that Amazon’s data is telling it that physical books will long have a place in its consumers’ baskets. Furthermore, in attempting to use the skills of online retailing for offline bookselling Amazon will be road-testing an approach that might not only work for books, but for a range of consumer goods.

It is also moving into high street retail at the bottom of the market, at a time when it will be able to cut advantageous deals with landlords desperate for a marquee retailing brand to draw shoppers back to the high street and retail parks. Last, it is also a hedge against high street competitors, who are nibbling away at Amazon’s online business while enjoying the benefits of high street visibility.

None of this means Amazon will be a good high street bookseller, or that this experiment will extend beyond Seattle. Much of what Amazon has so far said about the store is anathema to ‘real’ booksellers, and this is reflected in the reaction to The Bookseller’s story today and some of the comments made on Twitter.

Bookshops have necessarily differentiated themselves during this shift to online retailing by focusing on hand-selling, curation, and the human-side of shopping in actual places. A data-driven algorithmically charged approach, with books sold at prices that don’t cover the rent, taxes, or staff wages that other booksellers face, will feel like a slap in the face for many high street booksellers and perhaps a superficial, unexciting experience for shoppers. What price serendipity - of walking into a bookshop to find a book you never knew existed, or which no customer has rated at “4.8 Stars & Above”.

A bookshop is more than just the retail space it occupies; it is more than the books it stocks; and it is even more the the staff employed. Amazon will find that opening a book store is different from running a book store, and that the hardest trick of all is putting the heart into it.